Aspen’s Summer Playground

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The winter might be all about skiing, but warm weather months offer outdoor aficionados so much more.

By Alison Berkley Margo

#11_JasonDewey_ExpNov2015_hiresJPGThe snow may have melted and the ski lifts put on pause, but the amusement in Aspen doesn’t stop with the end of winter. Come summer, electric blue sun-drenched skies, fresh air, epic views and perfect temperatures create a whole new kind of playground.

It’s not at all uncommon to see vehicles equipped with complicated rack systems piled high with mountain bikes, road bikes and kayaks cruising down Main Street. Meanwhile, guests and locals alike flutter around town dressed in designer activewear as they venture from one outdoor activity to another, stopping for a quick bite and a caffeinated drink to refuel between a morning bike ride and an afternoon hike—a fly rod often affixed to the back of their packs. Even eating and drinking is alfresco: The sidewalk cafes and rooftop bars are packed with sun-kissed athletic adventurers indulging after a long day playing outside.

Surrounded by the famed 14,000-foot peaks of the Elk Range, and with a river that quite literally runs through the mountain town, the idyllic beauty of the Roaring Fork Valley surrounding Aspen can be experienced in a multitude of ways.

Supreme Summits

For an activity that requires little more than a solid tread on a decent pair of shoes, one of the best ways to experience the fresh air and unparalleled views is to simply put one foot in front of the other. The good news is you don’t have to summit Everest to see the majestic snow-capped peaks and the insurmountable beauty of green hillsides and endless mountain forests.

“Nature is primary here,” says Paul Andersen, local naturalist, wilderness guide and author of “Moonlight Over Pearl,” a collection of short stories about Aspen. “It’s so beautiful and inspiring; it can change people’s lives. It’s a haven for people who need to step back from their busy, hectic lives to get away from their electronic devices and to remember themselves as part of nature in a deeper sense.”

While the surrounding wilderness areas offer endless options for memorable day hikes, hikers don’t have to go very far to find that experience, Anderson says. He suggests a short walk up the Hunter Creek Trail, where an old homestead ranch at the start of the valley not only affords views of the Maroon Bells, Highland Bowl and Hayden Peak but also a glimpse into the way people were living a century ago. “You can imagine what it was like in the quiet and solitude of that valley,” Andersen says.

Erik Skarvan, owner/instructor of Sun Dog Athletics, suggests the Sunnyside Trail for wildflower viewing in the summer. “It’s an out-and-back [trail] so you can turn around whenever you like, which is great for people who are still acclimating to the altitude, and you don’t have to walk very far to get to some great views,” he says.

More athletic clients love to tackle the summit of Aspen Mountain via the Ute Trail, named after the Native American Ute tribe. The reward for this long, hard climb is not just the view from the summit, but a drink at the Sundeck followed by a knee-sparing ride down the Aspen Mountain gondola.

MaroonBells_shutterstock_17942149-3Smooth Cruising

Ask former Mayor Mick Ireland if Aspen is a bike-centric town and he’ll tell you he doesn’t even own a car. Part-time Aspen resident Lance Armstrong, who has participated in local mountain bike race series, would also most likely agree. Whether you road bike, mountain bike or just want to take an easy cruise on the pavement, one of the best ways to see Aspen is on two wheels.

You can see the whole valley from one end to the other on the Rio Grande Trail, a 40-mile (mostly paved) bike path that runs from Aspen all the way to Glenwood Springs, but there’s no need to go that far. Cruise five miles out (all slightly downhill) to the Woody Creek Tavern just outside of Aspen, where locals are known to congregate—including legends such as the late author Hunter S. Thompson, who was often found at the bar. Enjoy lunch and margaritas on the eclectic, Christmas light-strewn patio; afterward, organize private transportation back into town or challenge yourself with a ride back up to Aspen.

For a nice, rolling trail through open meadows, shady trees and bubbling brooks, check out the East of Aspen Trail, a gravel path that skirts the lazy waters of the North Star Nature Preserve and gives breathtaking views from the bottom of Independence Pass.

To get started, visit Aspen Sports (at the St. Regis or Cooper Avenue location), which can provide trailblazers with bike rentals, maps, trail information and more. For guided biking tours, local cyclist and trainer Scott Kasin of Katalyst Performance Consulting Inc. can take visitors on a bike riding experience through Aspen’s challenging terrain.

Shoshone back view in rapidRiver Rafting 

Named Thunder River by Ute Native Americans to describe the rumbling sound that begins in early spring, the Roaring Fork River tumbles down the valley with a kinetic energy that can be felt from its banks—but to be actually in it is an entirely different story. From white-knuckle rapids to a carefree float on a hot afternoon, there are full-day and half-day whitewater rafting outings to choose from on the Roaring Fork River as well as all-day trips on the Colorado and Arkansas rivers.

“There is no better way to understand the incredible, majestic beauty of the mountains than from the perspective you get floating down the river,” says Kate Giampapa, former river guide for Blazing Adventures.

Thrill-seekers can experience the spine-chilling Class IV rapids of the Upper Roaring Fork, including Slaughterhouse, one of the most technical rock gardens in Colorado boasting a six-foot waterfall drop. The faint of heart can explore the Lower Roaring Fork, where geology, local history and views of Mount Sopris—the tallest mountain in Colorado—dominate the scenery.

Fly fishing IMG_3006Fly-Fishing and Horseback Riding

The Roaring Fork Valley is known for its gold medal waters, a distinction for trout fishing that’s only been awarded to approximately 300 miles of the more than 7,000 miles of river that runs through the state of Colorado.

For adventurers seeking a peaceful scene—taking a page out of Brad Pitt’s book in “A River Runs Through It”—look no further than Aspen Outfitting Co. located at The St. Regis Aspen Resort, which provides travelers and residents with an unparalleled selection of guided activities. In addition to fly-fishing, the company can take guests clay target shooting, pistol shooting and upland bird hunting; however, fly-fishing is a unique way to explore Aspen’s environment.

“People without any experience are nervous because they think of fly-fishing as an art form or a science, but because our venue is of such high quality, and we have some of the best fishing guides in the business, fly-fishing can be accessible to anyone,” says Jarrod Hollinger, Aspen Outfitting operations manager.

Fish private land along the Roaring Fork River reserved for resort guests’ exclusive use, where the fish won’t know any better. “On public land, the fish practically have a Ph.D. in fly-fishing, so it’s not as easy to fool them,” Hollinger says. “Where we fish, we guarantee you won’t see anyone else. The fish are bigger, and they’re a lot less selective so the fishing is pretty great all the way through the summer.”

Fisherman, whether amateur or professional, have been known to catch rainbow trout, brown trout, and brook and cutthroat trout. Even if you’ve never fished before, chances are you’ll be hooked.

Upholding the same standard for the exploring on land as on the river, Aspen Outfitting Co. has guided horseback riding on private land since 1969 when the Paepcke Ranch on Red Mountain was the base of operations. These days, private outings—half-day, four-hour tours are offered daily—are hosted in the upper Hunter Creek Valley, where views of the West Elk Range make it one of the most spectacular spots in the area.

“This is not a dude ranch experience,” Hollinger says. “We give people the opportunity to do some free riding starting at the ghost town, and then heading up the valley through large meadows to the prettiest parts of the upper valley, where you look back and see Hayden Peak and Mount Daly.”

Whether seeking adrenaline-boosting Class IV rapids or a relaxing hike amid the wildflowers, the beauty of Aspen offers countless ways for outdoor lovers to explore this summer.

Mountain Essentials

With Aspen’s dry air, high altitude and strong sun, don’t forget these important items in your day pack.

#13_JasonDewey_ExpNov2015_hiresTIFFSunscreen

The air may feel cool and the lack of humidity can be misleading: Our sun is strong. At almost 8,000 feet above sea level, UV rays are extremely powerful and even short-term exposure can result in a painful, unexpected burn. Always use a waterproof sunscreen with at least 30 SPF for all-day protection, and wear a hat or visor to better protect your face.

Sunglasses

Cornea burn is a very common ailment that afflicts visitors to Aspen who don’t understand the importance of wearing eye protection in the daytime. Polarized lenses are best (and they make the skies appear even more blue), but make sure your eyes are covered regardless of where you are outside.

Water

Don’t underestimate the importance of drinking water at altitude, especially if planning to engage in athletic activities that cause perspiration. Again, the dryness can be misleading as sweat evaporates quickly from your skin and body, so you might feel dry when in reality you are losing a lot of precious fluids. Dehydration often can lead to altitude sickness—drink more water than you think you should.

Layers

It’s said that if you don’t like the weather in Colorado, wait five minutes. A cloud passing across the sun can cause the temperature to drop by 10 – 15 degrees, and storms roll in fast and without much warning. It is always a good idea to pack a lightweight water/wind resistant shell and a wicking long sleeve shirt in case something moves in—the good news is, it’ll probably only last five minutes.